Restoration of Lehoux's Saint Lawrence, Martyr

In 2017, the Musée d'Orsay is continuing its campaigns of restoration for works in its collections; it is prioritizing artworks that were not put on display in the museum galleries when it opened in 1986.
These restorations are part of its policy on the preventive conservation of the artworks, one of the museum's fundamental missions.

The operation showcases paintings from the Academic and Symbolist schools, with the restorations taking place in situ in the exhibition spaces.
Visitors can thus follow the work of the art restorers who are under the direction of the museum's conservators and experts from the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (C2RMF). The process of restoration is a combination of artistic technique and technological innovation.

Pierre Lehoux, "Saint Lawrence, Martyr" (1874)


Pierre LehouxSaint Lawrence, Martyr© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly-Crépy
Initially, Pierre Lehoux wanted to produce great paintings. So he was naturally attracted to history painting and, unusually, religious history.
David and Goliath, The Martyr of Saint- Etienne, Saint Martin carried up to Heaven by Two Angelswere some of the works that established his reputation.

The detailed treatment of powerful muscles is reminiscent of Michelangelo, whereas the skilful composition of the scene, mainly placing the key elements on a diagonal, is a technique derived from Baroque art.
Just like Joseph Blanc, he infuses his paintings with a strange quality, somewhat Mannerist, by using strident colours.
All these qualities can be found in Saint Lawrence, Martyr, which, in 1874, was awarded the first, newly created Salon prize.

However, the painting was difficult to understand; it was criticised for its excess: "the tense poses", "a jumble of foreshortenings [...], a screaming hotchpotch of legs, arms, torsos and heads given shape by a great many muscles, without harmony or dignity".
Although still a young artist, his painting was bought for the Musée du Luxembourg.

Diagnosis

The restoration of a work begins with a diagnostic study. This is made in order to identify the constituent materials, to analyse the artist’s technique and to establish a detailed condition report on the work.
This requires non-invasive methods of analysis: HD photographs, examinations under UV light, infrared reflectography. These analyses are complementary, as they enable several strata of the painted surface to be observed, right down to the preparatory layers.

UV fluorescence is used to inspect the surface layers such as the varnish. This examination enables the nature and type of application to be determined as well as detecting any previous restorations. Infrared reflectography enables the underlying layers to be observed as well as bringing out carbon-based underdrawings.

A material history of the artwork is thus established, from the layout of the composition to the development of identified degradations.
Following this, tests for cleaning are carried out in order to draw up a protocol of intervention adapted to the specific problems encountered.

Cleaning

The diagnostic study determined that the varnish on the surface was not original. This thick layer had yellowed, a factor inherent in aging resin, and this had altered the balance of the painter’s palette.

Cleaning, therefore, enabled the original surface layer of varnish to be removed. In order to carry out this operation while respecting the materials used by the artist, certain factors that could cause degradation had to be taken into account.
Until the Musée d’Orsay took responsibility for it, the canvas had been rolled up and it had been exposed for a long time to damp. These conditions caused lacunae (loss) in the paint layer as well as blanching in the varnish layer.

In order not to further weaken the original paint, indirect methods using compresses and solvent gels have enabled the varnish to be removed while limiting the mechanical action called “abrasion” on the paint layer.

Support

Storing the canvas rolled up without a stretcher caused distortions. The aim of the intervention on the support was therefore to ensure the conservation of the artwork and its future ability to be hung, by reducing these distortions as much as possible, and to re-stretch the painting on a new stretcher.

To achieve this, the canvas was strip-lined along the edges to reinforce it and make remounting possible. We subsequently made a loose lining, a process that involves putting a canvas under tension on the stretcher prior to the original canvas. For large format works, this stage makes the tensioning of the original canvas easier, and in this case was carried out using a floating wood and aluminium stretcher.

Finally, a protective board was placed on the back to limit dust deposits, variations in relative humidity and any vibrations to which the artwork is subjected, three important degradation factors for the artwork.

Mastic Application / Reintegration / Varnishing

The restoration of Saint Laurent, martyr [Saint Lawrence, Martyr] was completed with work to improve the aesthetic quality of the paint layer through the following interventions: the first varnishing of the work, the application of mastic to the lacunae and their chromatic reintegration, then the final varnishing.

Varnish was applied with a brush over the whole surface in order to protect the paint layer and to saturate the colours homogeneously. The lacunae were then filled with mastic and then worked on in order to recreate the appearance of the original adjacent surface.
The colour reintegration was carried out on these mastics, a process that aims to re-establish a visual harmony where the paint has been irreversibly degraded. For this, the tones of the original layer are reproduced as closely as possible using a blend of colours. Once the shade is found, it is applied on the mastic to fill in the missing form. Then, a final varnishing using pulverisation enables the general brilliance to be made uniform and at the desired level (more or less satin, matt, etc).

The materials used for these three interventions have been specifically designed for conservation-restoration. They observe the three great principles, which are: the reversibility, compatibility and stability of the materials used.
They are, in effect, different materials from those used by the artist, and can be removed without damaging the original painting.

This initiative is supported by a restoration fund sponsored by Crédit Agricole Ile de France, Great Patron of the Musée d'Orsay.

Glass enclosure built with the generous support of:

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